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Medical staff wearing PPE conduct a door to door medical screening inside Dharavi slums to fight against the spread of the coronavirus in Mumbai. (AFP)
Medical staff wearing PPE conduct a door to door medical screening inside Dharavi slums to fight against the spread of the coronavirus in Mumbai. (AFP)

How covid-19 is reversing the ban on single use plastic across India

  • The virus has led to a surge in use of single-use plastic but civic bodies do not have the resources to combat it right now
  • State governments are relaxing their own restrictions to ban plastic with fewer than 50-microns

BENGALURU/NEW DELHI: The pressure on hygiene and paranoia over the spread of the novel coronavirus is slowly leading to a reversal of the central government’s push to phase out single use plastic.

The dependence on disposables such as plastic cutlery, cups, containers, low-micron count carry bags, garbage bags and higher consumption of packaged drinking water as a safety measure to avoid contracting covid-19 as well as packaging material in online purchases has set back efforts to ring in a “revolution" to phase out its use as outlined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech in 2019.

"Use of plastic is something which we have allowed in Bengaluru in view of the prevailing situation," B.H.Anil Kumar, the commissioner of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP, the city's civic body) said.

In line with PM’s announcement, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)-led Delhi government also had plans to go single-use plastic free. With the onset of covid-19, plans have been pushed back due to the lack of resources. In Delhi, plastic measuring less than 50 microns has been banned by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee.

“Right now covid-19 is the priority. There was a whole campaign last year and we had made great movement in it. However, with the onset of covid-19, our priority is there. The virus has led to a large increase in the use of single-use plastic but we are up against a challenge and do not have the resources to take up the issue right now," a spokesperson of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation said.

Delhi has the highest number of cases among all Indian cities, with over 87,000 cases.

City corporations are already in a fix over face masks, shields, protective gear and other hazardous waste finding their way into regular piles of garbage that enhances the risk of spreading the virus. Piling up of plastic disposables has added to the strain on already inadequate garbage disposal and recycling infrastructure that is discarded on roads and drains or finds its way to landfills.

Struggling to cope with the rising number of cases, state governments in Delhi, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala among others are relaxing their own restrictions to ban plastic with fewer than 50-microns.

The Kerala government that had banned its use in January has since procured such material in large volumes to aid in relief work and distribution of free food through lakhs of community kitchens.

Though restrictions on marriages, political rallies and other events have brought down demand for plastic cups and other disposables, producers say that plastic has played a vital role during the pandemic.

Ironically, single use plastic has been used as part of relief efforts in all major cities, towns and villages to distribute essentials during the pandemic but is also contributing to a bigger problem of piling up disposables that often leads to clogged drains and polluting water bodies.

Experts say that the increasing use of plastic is also reversing the temporary "healing" process of the planet due to the three-months of covid-19 induced lockdown.

Dr Vijay Habbu, Adjunct Professor – Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai points at this kind of waste ending up in water bodies and as pollutants.

“The earth is healing itself; it is an ideal time to cut down on non-ecofriendly human practices such as littering and utilize this time to strengthen the plastic waste management and recycling ecosystem in our country," he said.

The sight of bridges covered in tons of plastic bottles, bags and wrappers coughed out by overflowing rivers in last year's Kerala and Karnataka floods still remains fresh in memory.

Ranjith Abraham, an executive with Kerala government’s Suchitwa Mission, said health officers, who are tasked to block use of single use plastic, are too equipped and busy with handling the pandemic and do not get time to check such matters.

Neetu Chandra Sharma and Nidheesh MK contributed to the story.

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